Is it necessary to fill out a song with harmony? And what kind of harmonies and instruments should you use? In this article, we’ll talk about how and when you should consider adding harmonic accompaniment to your songs.
Do All Songs Need Harmony?
No, songs don’t need harmony and many work without harmony such as chords added. But the genre or style of your song will strongly influence how much harmony is expected for your track.
A song is, at it’s most basic level, a set of lyrics and a melody. The rest of the music you add as accompaniment is simply complementary. It fills out the mix and makes the song more interesting, but the melody and lyrics are still the most identifying parts of the track.
Harmony and Genre
So what genres use the least amount of harmony and chords? And what kind of accompaniment is typical for a certain genre?
Here are a few (very generalized) suggestions on adding harmony for various genres of music:
|Music Genre/Style||Harmony Needed?||Common Accompaniment|
|Traditional Folk & Celtic||Not so much, songs are often performed a capella||Extra voices, guitar, mandolin, banjo, harp|
|Indie Folk||More than traditional, but arrangements can be simple||Guitar, maybe mandolin or banjo|
|Indie Pop & Bedroom Pop||Standard harmonic accompaniment (chords and bass)||Guitar, piano, ukulele, bass guitar, sometimes synths|
|Indie & Alternative Rock||Standard harmonic accompaniment (chords and bass)||Guitar and bass guitar, sometimes piano and synth|
|Lo-Fi & Alternative Hip Hop||Standard harmonic accompaniment (chords and bass)||“Jazz” guitar, piano, electric piano, synths, “funk” bass|
|Hyper Pop & Trap||More focus on the bass than on chord harmonies)||Synth or 808 bass, synthesizers in general|
Folk is the most common modern genre to forego harmony and feature just melody. Gregorian chant is another style that rarely used accompaniment, but I doubt your writing plainsongs.
Can You Have A Song Without Harmony?
Yes, you can write a song without adding harmony…but most modern genres will benefit from some accompaniment. If you are writing songs meant for a modern audience, then you probably want to add harmony to your melodies.
Unless you are writing/performing traditional folk styles, your listeners will probably expect some extra musical content beyond the main tune.
I know that I rattle on about how essential the melody of a song is, but the reality is that most listeners get bored with monophonic music. Adding harmony to your music provides several benefits:
- Expands the frequency palate
- Excites the rhythm
- Emphasizes consonance
Let’s look at these points briefly.
1. Expanding the Frequency Palate
All music is made of sound waves. Every note in music has a fundamental frequency as well as overtones. What’s more, different instruments have different timbres; that means any given instrument will sound more present in certain frequency ranges than others.
By adding more instruments to your song’s mix, you can fill out the frequency spectrum of your song. This will make the track sounds fuller.
But maybe don’t get carried away and compose a full orchestra arrangement for every song. Having too many instruments competing for space in a track can quickly make it sound muddy.
2. Excites the Rhythm
Rhythm can actually modify a music listener’s brain waves. Specifically, a person’s brain can synchronize with the rhythm of a song. This could be why people who exercise like listening to music with very active drum beats.
Rhythm also has an addictive quality that can keep a person hooked to the music.
So why not take unfair advantage of your listeners’ brains to keep them interested in your song? Adding a rhythmic instrument or two can excite this synchronous effect in the brain.
While drums are usually unpitched, there are several ways to add or support a rhythm to your song using pitched harmonic instruments like:
- Guitar chords with a distinctive strumming pattern,
- Bass guitar holding down the track’s beat pattern,
- Piano chords, which can do both the chords and the bass pattern (on a full sized keyboard, at least)
3. Emphasizes Consonance
Lastly, harmony can amplify the effects of consonance and dissonance in your music.
Consonance is when music sounds like it resolves to an ending or finds stability. Conversely, dissonance is when music sounds unstable and unresolved.
Consonance and dissonance can occur in a melody alone, but adding chords is another way to introduce resolution to your tune.
For example, let’s say your “melody” is a droning C note. If you play a G chord underneath it, the music will sound unresolved because the third of a G major chord is a B. That B note conflicts with the C note in the melody. But if you then end the bar on a C major or F major chord, the music sounds like it reaches a conclusion. The conflict of the B and C together resolves because the B moves up to a C note.
How Do I Add Harmony to My Song?
Harmony does not have to be complicated: just adding a few chords or arpeggios is usually enough to make a pop song. You don’t even need to add drums if you’re after an intimate mood to your track.
If you don’t have an instrument to play, there are other ways to source background music. I have an article all about it.
In short, here are a few ways you can add harmony to your song without playing an instrument:
- Pre-made beats,
- Sample packs,
- writing chords into the piano roll of your DAW
Do All Songs Need A Bass?
No, bass parts are not needed for all types of songs. Songs that are meant to be stripped down (i.e. acoustic or “unplugged”), folk, or ballads will do fine without a bass line. But hip hop, rock and mainstream pop will benefit tremendously from having some bass.
And it doesn’t have to be an extravagant counterpoint bass line. A simple but effective bass just needs to:
- Follow the root notes of your chords, and
- Hold down the beat of the kick drum
If you lack a bass guitar but still want to add bass to your tracks, then here are some suggestions for substitutes.
Harmony is helpful in a variety of ways. If you want to write monophonic music with just a melody, that’s totally fine. But harmony can enhanced a variety of qualities in your music.
If you’d like to learn more about music producer for songwriters, then consider reading the following guides: